At the end of a week that opened with Independence Day on the 4th of July, Americans got some stark reminders that not everyone in the country is free. Over the course of five days, at least seventeen people were killed by police. The most widely protested of these shootings was of Alton Sterling, a thirty seven year old black man shot dead in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, a thirty two year old black man shot in Minnesota. In an event that was not unrelated to these two incidents, but added to the shock and controversy surrounding them, Micah Xavier Johnson shot five police officers in Dallas, who had been assigned to an anti-police brutality march. After an extended standoff, Johnson was killed when police equipped a drone to deliver a bomb. In the aftermath of these terrible events, the right has seized upon the killing of police officers to discredit the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Other conservatives have claimed that black Lives Matter is making it harder for police, propagating the myth that policing is the most ‘hazardous job in the country’. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani claimed that the black lives matter movement is ‘inherently racist, because it divides us’ chastising activists for supposedly ignoring violence in black communities. There are obviously lots of other issues at play here, access to guns being among them. I would like to do another blog post on why on think gun control is insubstantial, in dealing with violence. However, as the wave of mourning and protests suggests, people in America are crying out for more substantial changes than gun control. This blog post will focus on the race and police brutality aspect of the recent events, explaining why we can’t let bigots and conservatives, co-opt them for their own ends.
Black Lives Matter
Within moments of the shooting of the five Dallas police officers by Johnson, mainstream media outlets were asking: where do black lives matter go from here? The New York Times even went as far to present two versions of the same story with the headline declaring ‘Strides of Black Lives Matter Halt in an Instant’ and then ‘Black Lives Matter was Gaining Ground. Then a Sniper Open Fired’
The general premise surrounding such rhetoric, is the misinformed assumption that the killing of the police officers stem from the ideas of BLM. Firstly, it needs pointing out that this is a dangerous assumption, in that it creates hostility towards anyone demanding accountability from their government, on the issue of race. This is despite the fact that Johnson was identified as a lone assailant, not affiliated with any activist group. This has happened before, when in March 2015, two police officers were killed in Ferguson, critics of the movement tried to lay the blame at the feet of BLM. However, this tragedy did not end the movement, because the movement to cause this tragedy. Indeed, despite claims that BLM are only focussing on black Americans, they have managed to take a relatively intersectional approach to social issues, by extending their concerns to education, labour, gender equality and the rights of LGBT people. The intimidation and arrests of those who have videotaped police misconduct and protested, has not stopped the wave of organising across the entire country. Regardless of the rhetoric coming from the mainstream press, surely the ability of the movement to clearly articulate its objectives, and to concentrate on an array of issues, answers all questions about the movement’s future viability.
Broken Windows Policing
As I mentioned earlier in the article, one of the main people to condemn Black Lives Matter, following the Dallas shooting was the Former Mayor of New York. However, his rhetoric that black lives matter is divisive is extremely ironic, coming from someone who has been the flag bearer of ‘broken windows’ policing.
The premise of broken windows is a simple one: small crimes or acts that seem ‘disorderly’ such as vandalism and public drinking, must be repressed in order to prevent more dangerous forms of criminal behaviour. The idea first emerged when corporations in New York became enthusiastic about plans to rejuvenate some of the main areas of the city, in an effort to attract tourists and wealthy residents. However, these plans ran headfirst into the city’s growing population of homeless people. The racial demographics of New York’s homelessness, being predominantly black, made the New York’s homeless, be associated with criminality and danger. Newspaper articles responded to this, by linking the mere premise of homelessness with crime and vandalism, implicitly preying on racist fears. It was for these reasons that the policy of broken windows policing was specifically developed. In the decades since, broken windows has been at the heart of a broad range of policy initiatives, like stop and search and CompStat – fuelled arrests in African American communities. The unreasonable response to Eric Garner’s sale of loose cigarettes, responsible for his suffocation and death was broken windows policies taken to their logical conclusion. What policies like these do is target the victims of a socio-economic system that already neglects minorities, because of their historical status as subservient, and the longer we keep such policies alive, the longer structural racism will be a problem.
Sterling and Castile were killed because of the Colour of their Skin
Some progressive to left leaning publications have published articles in the aftermath of the killing of Castile and Sterling, trying to detach the killings from the issue of white supremacy, by arguing that it is wrong to assume that skin colour can commit murder, and that not just black people are victims of police violence. This is well intentioned, but fails to address the issue of racism.
One article that caught my attention was a piece in left leaning publication Jacobin entitled, ‘Did the colour of his skin kill Philando Castile?’ by Barbara and Karen Fields. This article sees the authors repeating the commonly used phrase that ‘Skin colour has no capacity to act, either for good or for ill’. This is obviously a true statement, but tells us nothing, because no one who is not a complete racist, ever claims the opposite. It also fails to explain why Sterling and Castile were ultimately, stopped and killed. I understand what people who use this argument are trying to do, in shifting blame away from the target to the aggressor, but few who claim that such attacks happen because of the colour of the targets skin, are trying to blame to the victim. Instead, they are pointing to structural patterns of white supremacy within society. To make the ‘skin colour can’t pull a trigger’ argument, is to do nothing more than to cloak a generally misguided approach to police brutality, in the language of progressive politics. Surely it would be more constructive to take an approach which recognises that there are a myriad of different issues at play here, such as class, but that white supremacy is one of the main factors.
This leads me to my second point. In their Piece, Barbara and Karen fields do make some attempt to come up with a structural argument, explaining police killings as the result of increasing ‘emotional instability, poor judgement, inadequate training and ill-considered policies’. However, this kind of argument ultimately falls flat, when looking at it from a historical point of view. American police have nearly always killed black people, without having to worry about the consequences of their actions. One may be tempted to highlight cases of police killing white people, in an attempt to highlight the inadequacy of arguments focusing on skin colour, and it is important that we take these cases into account. However, the damage wrought on white communities by heavily militarized police, does not change the fact that young black men are five times more likely to be killed by police then young white men. Focussing our arguments on white supremacy does not neglect structure or blame the victim. Rather, it is central to the idea of questioning hierarchy in American society. Without understanding this, it is impossible to understand why the right to bear arms applies to white Americans but not to black Americans, and why the right to ‘stand your ground’ was one enjoyed by George Zimmerman but no Trayvon Martin or Marissa Alexander.
I would like to end this blog post by quoting Frank Castro, a fellow political blogger. In his article on the Dallas shooting he states.
‘In the aftermath to come, Americans should remain vigilant of the mainstream media’s tendency to blame-both-sides equally, regardless of the lopsided casualties of police violence. And whether or not Americans will agree or disagree with Johnson’s actions should not be the question we explore most. Focusing on his actions alone is a convenient diversionary tactic which enables America’s white supremacist power structure to delegitimize his anger and sweep the issue of state terror back under the rug. Instead, we should ask how are we going to communicate to police officers that if they wish ever again to be secure from the consequences of their violence, their top priority must be to stop terrorizing black and brown communities. That if they truly desire their own safety, they will first have to stop murdering people — or else more chickens, inevitably, will come home to roost’.
This is largely accurate. When dealing with issues that involve race or other minorities, it is important to recognise the importance not just of the issue itself but the general reaction to it, as this is the thing that will determine the direction our society goes in. There are many who will unfortunately use the events in Dallas to throw fuel on the fire of racist politics and white supremacy. There are others who will try and ignore the issue of race completely. Our duty should be not to accept either of these viewpoints, but to mount our own opposition to racism, and the power structures that facilitate it.